MACOMB, Ill. — Lynn Shimmin, a western Illinois crop and livestock farmer, was more interested in the potential of growing commercialized pennycress on his farm after attending a field day at Western Illinois University.
It was too wet to finish planting his soybeans May 26, and sudden bursts of rain kept coming, so he thought his time could be well-spent learning about pennycress at the university near his home in Roseville.
Some of his concerns about growing such a crop were based on its history as a weed. He didn’t want to grow a crop that would be a future weed problem for him or his neighbors.
“Years ago a neighbor got into the sunflower business. That didn’t go well for the neighbors,” he said. “I don’t want to plant something that will be a problem to my neighbors.”
He looked at samples of the black wild pennycress seeds and the new golden CoverCress seeds bred to be used commercially.
WIU professor Win Phippen, who has been studying pennycress for more than a dozen years, explained the new
CoverCress has been developed through breeding to lose some of the less desirable traits of wild pennycress and gain desirable traits for biofuel and feed.
The field day also included dedication of the new Integrated Pennycress Research Enabling Farm and Energy Resilience Project building, which offered shelter during the height of a thunderstorm during the event and space for learning and socializing as well as for machinery storage and display.
The IPREFER project is starting its fourth year of a five-year $10 million USDA grant. WIU is collaborating with Illinois State University in Normal, the University of Minnesota in Duluth and CoverCress, a Missouri-based company commercializing the CoverCress crop. Together they are developing a cash cover crop for the Midwest.
The research has five areas of focus including developing new varieties and traits, developing a planting guide, looking at ecosystem interactions, constructing the supply chain for the new product and providing education and research, Phippen said.
“The first six years it was a black seed. We drove around and found wild pennycress,” he said.
After that, work became more focused on developing sound traits. The new traits are a product of advanced gene editing where traits can be turned on and off.
The product initially focused on biofuel and will now have other uses as it is made more edible for animals and people, he said.
Product development began about 10 years ago, said Mike DeCamp, president of CoverCress Inc. and a former Monsanto executive. Part of the research is to eliminate its “weediness.”
Product development and scaling up acreage takes time, DeCamp said. The first commercial crop will be harvested this June for grain and seeds for 2023.
One of the earliest buyers of the whole grain will be the broiler industry, he said.
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CoverCress will initially have 2 to 4% inclusion in poultry feed, he said. Work continues on reducing its bitterness and increasing its palatability and other traits that make it good feed, he said.
CoverCress is gearing up from 1,000 acres this year to 10,000 acres next year in Illinois, Iowa and Missouri, he said.
The goal is for farmers to plant, harvest and take the CoverCress to a market which will eventually be within 50 miles. Today there is only one market in Illinois, he said.
Potentially, the crop could be grown on up to 10 million acres as a double crop where corn and soybeans are grown in the Midwest, he said. Initially it was expected to be grown after corn, but it does better after soybeans, he said. The idea is to harvest CoverCress in late May or June and plant soybeans.
Some of the research is funded by the Illinois Soybean Association. One field trial is studying intercropping soybeans into pennycress. This is the first year of the study, said WIU professor Mark Bernards.
In the first trial, the soybeans were planted into the growing pennycress on March 21 and April 12. In this study, soybeans will be also be planted after the pennycress is harvested in early June. Yields of pennycress and soybeans in each sets of trials will be calculated, he said.
Other research plots look at planting methods, including air seeding and seed drills. Still others study seed treatments, weed control, popular traits and emergence. Tillage, residue and seeding rates are also being studied here and at other plots in Illinois and in Minnesota.
Pennycress, at a glance
There are several varieties of pennycress:
Wild Pennycress: Seed color ranges from tan to red, grey or black. It is high in erucic acid (not desirable for feed), high in glucosinolates (bitter taste) and high in fiber.
PennyPlus: Seed color ranges from tan to red, grey or black. It is low in erucic (more favorable for feed), high in glucosinolates (bitter) and high in fiber.
Golden Pennycress: Seed color is golden yellow, low fiber, high oil, fast germination.
CoverCress: Seed color is golden yellow, low erucic acid (favorable for feed), low glucosinolates (less bitter, more palatable) and low in fiber.
All three non-wild lines can be gene edited. Western Illinois University, Illinois State University, the University of Minnesota, USDA and CoverCress Inc. have been researching and developing the crop for several years.